Many stops on journey to non religion – Jake Hjorth

There’s a well-known saying that we should stop and smell the roses. It seems that Western culture has a hard time following that advice, maybe because we too often think of life as a journey — that is, we always need to get somewhere.

Prompted by religion, we are taught that life here and now has no value in itself. It only serves as a journey to get to “The Promised Land.”

Having been on such a journey from early on and engaged in the ministry as both Roman Catholic priest and United Church of Christ minister, I’ve finally gotten “off the bus.” I now view my life more like a cruise, the goal of which is to appreciate the sites visited and sites yet to come.

Before I go into more detail about my “ports of call,” I must state that whatever ups and downs, good or bad or right or wrong my cruise has offered me, I sum it up as a great and positive life experience. Everything and everybody in my past have brought me to my “now,” and for that I am grateful. Any critical remarks that I may make about past experiences should therefore be seen with that in mind. 

I stepped aboard my cruise in Denmark four years before the five-year occupation of my native country during World War II started. My family was Roman Catholic, both my parents having converted from Lutheranism, Denmark’s official state religion. I and my five siblings were brought up in the faith, went to church every Sunday and followed the rules dictated by the pope and promulgated by the local bishop.

During the war, our family was part of the resistance movement. We helped Danish Jews flee to Sweden. We huddled in the basement during air raids. My father was imprisoned by the Gestapo for three months in the summer of 1944. Fortunately, he was not sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

Looking back on the war experience and its aftermath, I find that it gave us all a drive to make a better world, a safer world, a more trusting world. While I was too young at the time to reflect on this, I think that it was, and still is, in my genes.

I was sent to a St. Joseph Sisters school for the first two years, after which I was transferred to a Jesuit all-boys school. I spent four years under Jesuit discipline until it got to be too much. One day I left school and went to my dad’s office to ask for help. After a long phone conversation with the principal, it was decided I would transfer to a public school in our neighborhood.

Entering a public co-ed school in seventh grade was a great revelation. I enjoyed being around girls a lot. I dated a girl in high school and got engaged right after graduation. We planned on getting married as soon as our future education was completed and jobs were secured. But I started to flounder to the point that my fiancée lost patience with me. We ended our engagement but remained friends and correspondents. 

Entering the priesthood

It took a couple of years before I got my wits back together. I found that the priesthood would be the right thing for me. Trips to Rome and public audiences with the pope made me feel that to be part of an age-old institution should be my calling.

On one of my trips to Rome, I came upon the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. I had been encouraged by my bishop to visit them, which resulted in my being assigned to the U.S. Oblate Fathers and entering a novitiate in France.

After a year I made my first vows of obedience, poverty and chastity, vows which I had reflected on in agony. I was sent to the Oblate seminary in Mississippi and graduated with a degree in philosophy and theology after six years. The graduation resulted in my ordination as a priest. 

I enjoyed my years in the seminary. I enjoyed the American youthful ways, the willingness to try everything. I fell in love with America, a love I have to this day.

In retrospect, I admit that the education I received was very limiting. I spent my years in Mississippi during the days of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was never mentioned or discussed among us seminarians. Being somewhat cloistered, I did not reflect on it. Only later did it dawn on me that a religious order of priests should have been right there marching along with the movement.

The segregation in the South bothered me personally. One day I boarded a bus and found it a great opportunity to show how I could befriend the blacks. I went to the back of the bus and sat down, wanting them to feel that I was one of them.

At the next stop, a young black woman got on and walked toward the back. She stopped by me and remained standing, looking at me with questioning eyes. I did not understand her dilemma. After all, there were plenty of empty seats ahead of me. I remained seated till I got off.

As the bus continued on, it dawned on me what a terrible thing I had done. In my naïveté, I had tried to join the blacks, not realizing that wherever I sat, I made a demarcation line. I wish to this day I could beg the woman’s forgiveness.

After my ordination, I spent two years in a U.S. parish and enjoyed serving as assistant in a large congregation with young families. After that cruise stop, I finally went back to Denmark to serve as one of the few native Danish priests.

Leaving the priesthood

During my training for the priesthood, there was a great movement within the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII (affectionately called Pope Johansen in Denmark) called for a Vatican Council to open the windows to the church and let in fresh air. It was refreshing to breathe the air for a few years, but his successor, Pope Paul VI, closed the windows and the air became stale again.

It caused me to rethink my vocation. I returned to America. and after two years left the priesthood. I got married to a woman with four small children and found work in public education. Running afoul with the village school board, I became a carpenter and enjoyed that work for about 15 years. Religion did not matter much during that time. My attention went to raising a family and keeping my marriage going. 

One day a friend asked me to help him with a church retreat run by a United Church of Christ congregation. I enjoyed the retreat and the pastor and soon after joined the church with my wife.

The pastor, knowing, my background, asked me some time later if I would like to become a UCC minister. I agreed and was accepted without fanfare. My next port of call was a suburban church in White Bear Lake, Minn., where I served for 10 years until my marriage broke up. I retired from ministry and went back to Denmark to teach at a folk school (folkehøjskoler) for a year.

Returning to America, I freed myself from religion as I began to study the nature of religion without commitment. It became clear to me that religion, any religion, enslaves the minds of people by basing life on a creed of self-righteous intolerance which invariably leads to war. One need only peruse the daily news.

While still a minister, I once wrote an article to the local newspaper. It was titled “To be more like Jesus than about Jesus.” Religion is “to be about.” Religion is based on the use of the deadly DDT: Dogma, Doctrine and Tradition.

It would be well if we would follow the great humanists’ examples and be more like them than about them, to think freely and speak openly.

Let me finish not with an “Amen” but with “Keep cruising along!”


FFRF member Jake Hjorth lives in Grand Marais, Minn.

Freedom From Religion Foundation